NEW ORLEANS — After viewing scenes of devastation from the back of an Army truck, President Bush defended the pace of federal relief efforts Monday, insisting race did not affect the flow of aid to Hurricane Katrina's victims. Soon after Bush spoke, his beleaguered top emergency aide announced his resignation.
The president's first close-range visit to the crippled Crescent City coincided with fresh evidence that high water was retreating dramatically in some stretches of once-submerged wards and that vital services were returning.
Stark reminders of Katrina's destructive swath still surfaced: Morgue workers had received the bodies of 45 patients found at an inundated hospital. And Louisiana's attorney general launched an investigation into the drowning of at least 20 residents in a St. Bernard Parish nursing home reportedly abandoned by the staff during the height of the floods.
Setting out on his third tour of the battered Gulf Coast region since Katrina raked the southern coast two weeks ago, Bush promised that the government's recovery effort "will be comprehensive." His remarks were aimed at deflecting a barrage of criticism that the federal government had moved sluggishly after one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history.
"The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort," Bush said in response to suggestions that aid had been delivered haltingly to the city's majority black populace. "When those Coast Guard choppers -- many of whom were first on the scene -- were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin."
Bush called on Congress "to take a good, close look at what went on" with the government's performance.
But at a later stop in Gulfport, Miss., he was peppered with questions about the resignation of Federal Emergency Management Agency director Michael D. Brown.
Bush, riding upright in a rumbling military truck convoy, squinted at vacant shotgun shacks and debris-crusted streets, ducking at times to avoid jutting tree branches and power lines. He was joined in the jostling truck by military commanders, federal officials, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco.
"My impression of New Orleans is this: that there is a recovery on the way," Bush said. Behind him lay hulks of immobile cars newly freed from ebbing floodwaters.
Bush also glimpsed the reviving French Quarter, where instead of tourists and strippers, there were grime-stained workers and Red Cross volunteers. But the convoy did not happen upon the humbled city's saddest sights -- the white-shrouded mortuary teams poking into once-flooded wards, collecting the bodies of Katrina's victims. Authorities have now confirmed 279 fatalities in Louisiana and 214 in Mississippi.
Until recently, the mortuary operation had been overseen by Brown, who quit as FEMA's head three days after Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff ousted him as point man for the Katrina recovery operation.
White House officials said that R. David Paulison, former head of the U.S. Fire Administration, would be acting director of the agency.
Paulison has a loyal following of firefighters in Florida, where as Miami-Dade County's fire chief he is remembered for pressing for aid for 400 firefighters whose homes were destroyed or damaged during Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
"He got a good baptism with Andrew," said Dominick Barbera, a vice president of the International Assn. of Firefighters. "He's going to step into a real hot box now."
In his letter of resignation to Bush, Brown, 50, said he was leaving "to avoid further distraction from the ongoing mission of FEMA." Brown had become a pincushion for critics of the Bush administration's storm response and was accused in recent news reports of exaggerating his emergency experience on his official resume.
Bush declined to comment on Brown's resignation during his gulf tour. But spokesman Scott McClellan later said aboard Air Force One, "The president appreciates Mike Brown's service. This was Mike Brown's decision. This was a decision he made."
Brown's departure came as little surprise. Democratic congressional leaders and some Republicans had pressed for his exit -- even after Chertoff recalled Brown to Washington and replaced him in the flood region with Coast Guard Vice Adm. Thad W. Allen.
"Brown should have resigned last Friday and spared the Bush administration an entire weekend of being bashed," Republican strategist Scott Reed said.
FEMA is still teetering in disarray. Last week, the agency scuttled a plan to provide debit cards to hundreds of thousands of flood victims. And on Sunday, Louisiana and New Orleans officials sniped anew at Brown's temporary housing plans. The critics -- who included Nagin -- complained FEMA had dawdled on housing plans and showed insensitivity to black flood victims by forcing them to live in a rural tent city far from their urban roots.